House Select Committee on Assassination, Warren Commission, JFK Records
The House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s (top). The Warren Commission on September 24, 1964 (bottom). Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Congress / Wikimedia, Cecil W. Stoughton / Wikimedia, and artemtation / Pixabay

This story is part of our series revisiting the JFK assassination. To understand why we’re doing this, read our introduction.

– OPINION –

On December 14, the Biden administration released 1,500 documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. By most estimates, another 10,000 documents still remain secret — either partially redacted or withheld in their entirety.

The 1992 JFK Records Act mandated that all secret government material on the assassination be released no later than October 2017. Only documents that the president declared a threat to national security would be exempted. That year, President Donald Trump began what is now an annual ritual: the executive branch’s failure to comply with the deadline. 

Trump dutifully followed instructions from intelligence and law enforcement agencies — the very “deep state” he would rail against during his later impeachment investigation and trial — and declared approximately 18,000 documents too harmful to national security to share, and accepted the heavy redactions on documents that were released. 

“Certain information should continue to be redacted because of national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns,” the president said. “I have no choice — today — but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our Nation’s security.”  

Trump also allowed the CIA and FBI to continue deliberating whether to release documents at all — despite the congressionally mandated deadline — for another six months, an extension later pushed back further to a year. 

It’s hard to credit any genuine national security risks in the contents of documents from half a century ago. But along with generations-long stonewalling by the government, this charade also highlights the failings of mainstream media. 

Major news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, loyal defenders of the Warren Commission Report, fail to tell the public the full story behind the JFK records non-release. Moreover, they continue to mischaracterize other key aspects of the assassination and subsequent investigations.  

Media Missteps or Compliance?

Take the Associated Press (AP). The US’s main wire service, considered the paragon of neutrality and accuracy, declared in a short and superficial mention published December 15 that the previous day’s release “satisfies a deadline set in October by Joe Biden and is in keeping with a federal statute that calls for the release of records in the government’s possession.” But that is objectively false: The cited statute, the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, mandated the release of all documents by October 2017, with only narrow exceptions for information that tangibly harms US security. 

And nowhere does the AP mention that 10,000 documents are still partially or entirely kept secret, four years after the final deadline.

The AP also implicitly praises Trump releasing as many as he did — “about 2,800” records, the AP notes. But in fact, Trump — as advised or directed by intelligence agencies — started the practice of recertifying en masse that each of some 10,000 still-withheld documents could inflict irreversible harm, yet promising that the intelligence agencies would keep looking at them and reconsidering. This is not an observation the AP shares. 

And anyone coming to the AP story fresh would have no idea that for many Americans, the Kennedy assassination remains the republic’s greatest unsolved crime. The most recognition the AP offers to the majority of Americans who believe Oswald did not act alone is to mention “historians and others who, decades after the Kennedy killing, remain skeptical that, at the height of the cold war, a troubled young man with a mail-order rifle was solely responsible for an assassination that changed the course of American history.”

While the AP dutifully notes that the Warren Commission “concluded that Oswald had been the lone gunman,” the wire service ignores the conclusion of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) that there was a probable conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. 

Instead, the AP invokes the HSCA merely as having found “no evidence to support the theory that the CIA had been involved.” That is hardly an adequate summary of the HSCA’s findings, or of the wide-ranging evidence it compiled, some of which could indeed be construed as implicating intelligence operators. 

Regardless, with more time and much more information than was available to the Warren Commission, on top of being composed of independent elected representatives rather than handpicked selections of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the House committee’s official findings should be given more weight than the Warren Commission’s.   

Why ‘JFK Revisited’ Is Necessary

Other media follow the AP’s disappointing example. CBS News also duly reminded readers only that the “commission overseen by Chief Justice Earl Warren… concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” CNN allows that “public polling has long shown that a majority of Americans do not believe the Warren Commission’s official finding that Kennedy was killed by a single man, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone.” But CNN similarly omits mention of the House Select Committee and its contradiction of the Warren Commission. Such selective history contrasts with what witnesses in court must swear — to tell “the whole truth.”

As for The Washington Post and The New York Times, two of the Warren Commission’s most loyal defenders, only the Post covered the December release at all. 

The Post patronizingly calls it “the latest milestone in a decades-long push by advocates to have all of the documents about the former president’s untimely death declassified.” Only many paragraphs later does the reader learn that full release is in fact the law — and the Post makes no mention of the House Select Committee’s 1979 conclusion of a probable conspiracy. 

The Times, America’s newspaper of record, noted in October the Biden administration’s announcement that the release of records, then due, would be delayed for three months, a backlog chalked up to COVID-19. That article did go further than many peer publications; it mentioned that the “House select committee said in a 1979 report that there was evidence suggesting the possibility of a conspiracy.” But the article did not mention the number of documents still withheld.

Coverage of the releases that fails to mention the number and nature of documents still withheld is — at best — disappointingly uncritical. At worst, it smacks of compliance.   

The Original “Fake News” 

Why would mainstream media abet the cover-up? Their pliability to authority is suggested in a 1967 CIA memo advising agents on how to deflect growing popular skepticism of the Warren Commission’s official findings and its “Oswald did it alone” theory.  

The memo confidently asserted that the agency could exploit “propaganda assets to answer and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose.”   

Whether the media was and is amenable to such exploitation can be debated. But since the media seems to routinely miss the whole story — and continues to disparage Americans who can see for themselves the holes in the government story — they are hardly tilting the debate in their favor. They may even be playing into the hands of those who accuse them of spreading “fake news.” 

Robert Smith is an American living in Europe who writes under the nom de plume Blackthorn.